Review: The Americans
Note: This appeared in the print-only TV Guide of The Marshall Independent.
“The Americans” on FX network may be the series that blows open the secret history of the Cold War – the secret that’s been out in the open for some time now, except nobody is looking. If the network suits don’t chicken out.
Created by Joe Weisberg, a former CIA officer, “The Americans” is the story of Phillip and Elizabeth Jennings (Mathew Rhys and Keri Russell) an American couple living in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. in the 1980s.
A devoted couple with two children Paige (Holly Taylor) and Henry (Keidrich Sellati) they are living the American Dream.
Except they’re not American, they’re Russian. They know nothing about each other’s real pasts before they were introduced by their KGB superiors and told they were to be husband and wife. They only know their “legends,” the false pasts of their cover identities. Their children were born in America and have no idea what their parents really are.
After the end of the Cold War, the declassified Venona Transcripts and the testimony of high-level defectors such as KGB Major Vassili Mitrokhin and Polish Colonel Ryszard Kuklinski, revealed the received wisdom of the Cold War as a lie.
Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were guilty, not even their children deny that anymore. Alger Hiss was guilty. The State Department was riddled with traitors in the 1940s and early ‘50s. Franklin Roosevelt’s closest advisor was a Soviet agent. The Communist Party U.S.A. was not a home-grown movement, but a puppet of the Comintern supported by Soviet funds.
The Soviet Union never intended to coexist peacefully with us; their long-range goal was always to conquer us. In the nearer term future they planned to invade and occupy Western Europe using Warsaw Pact forces from Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia driven ahead of the Red Army to remind them which side they were on.
The scheduled date of the invasion was originally the early 1980s, the period “The Americans” is set in. This is not a paranoid fantasy, my children’s grandfather was a Polish officer in the Secret Chancellery and knew very well the order was going to come, someday. As did my son’s godmother, the widow of a KGB defector.
The story of the Jennings life in America mirrors a stark reality. Deep cover agents were taught everything necessary to function in America and trained to speak perfect unaccented English from an early age. Once in America they were ordered to keep language discipline, never to speak their native language under any circumstances.
This is not a fantasy either. In 1996 I worked with a young Russian in Bulgaria who spoke perfect English with a Midwestern American accent.
“Special schools since I was 10,” he explained.
Elizabeth believes in the mission, believes Reagan is a dangerous madman out to destroy the Rodina (Motherland). When a comrade on a mission to kidnap a KGB defector is mortally wounded, Phillip takes the time to drop him off within walking distance of an ER.
“The mission comes first!” Elizabeth says angrily.
Phillip is conflicted. In the very first episode he openly suggests defecting.
“We could be millionaires!” he says. “And the children are American anyway.”
Their situation is complex. Phillip wants to release the defector – until Elizabeth reveals he was a training officer in the KGB academy who raped her, with official sanction.
“Sorry,” he says. “We were told to do anything we wanted with the cadets.”
Phillip kills him.
Elizabeth and Phillip are developing feelings for each other, after 15 years of “marriage” and two children. Complicated by the fact Elizabeth sometimes has to seduce potential sources.
Phillip also seduces a source by posing as a Swedish diplomat. But his source is flighty and threatens to expose him if he doesn’t leave his “wife.” Phillip may have to kill her.
An FBI agent (Noah Emmerich) moves into their neighborhood. He’s quite open about his work, but is this a ruse to rattle them?
Elizabeth shows signs of softening. She forces a maid in Secretary of Defense “Cap” Weinberger’s house to install a covert recording device by injecting her son with poison via an umbrella gun. But she gives the boy the antidote even when the mission is only a partial success.
Not a James Bond fantasy either. My first coup as an amateur journalist was interviewing the widow of a Belarusian dissident murdered this way.
The tradecraft portrayed in “The Americans” is utterly convincing. The tension is almost unbearable, though we know how the Cold War ended.
Will the series show how WWIII was avoided? Will the suits have to guts to tell it like it was? Will the Jennings come in from the cold?
When Elizabeth softens towards Phillip, she tells him, “My name was Nadezhda.”
In Russian that means, “Hope.”